Shakespeare wrote many a sonnet about the love of friends and friendship, and though we have commentators and historians to tell us that some of his sexual loves were female and others male, the friendship component of many of the sonnets is a free-standing element of them, which could lead one to read those particular sonnets aloud to friends of a more Platonic nature and mean it just as literally. Today, I would like to illustrate this point with a comparison of three of them, representing a sort of past, present and future in the conceptual history of a friendship.
First, the past: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past,/I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,/And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:/Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,/For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,/And weep afresh love’s long since canceled woe,/And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:/Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,/And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er/The sad account of fore-bemoanéd moan,/Which I new pay as if not paid before./But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,/All losses are restored and sorrows end.” Here, the past is the main emphasis of the poet’s conception, yet he thinks of the “dear friend” and ceases to mourn, though there is no sure sign that the friend is still alive in the present tense except possibly for the direct address in the word “thee” (which is still temporally ambiguous to a certain extent).
Then, the present: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state,/And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,/And look upon myself, and curse my fate,/Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,/Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,/Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,/With what I most enjoy contented least;/Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,/Haply I think on thee–and then my state,/Like to the lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;/For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” In this sonnet, though the poet does speak of “thy sweet love remembered,” almost as if the love were in the past, the main gist of the poem casts the experience of the poet in the present: he is even despairing of “deaf heaven” at the beginning of the poem, yet by the end he forsakes the considerations of “sullen earth” and his “state” transitions into something like a “lark” which “sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” Thus, the change is not so much within heaven as within the poet’s experience and attitude toward heaven, and the poem is the moment of transition contained in an awareness of the present.
Finally, the future: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,/So do our minutes hasten to their end;/Each changing place with that which goes before,/In sequent toil all forwards do contend./Nativity, once in the main of light,/Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,/Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,/And time that gave now doth his gift confound./Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth/And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,/Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,/And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow./And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,/Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.” In this poem, which looks at the entire span of human life as a gradual hopeless fight of the pebbles against the sucking sea, of youth against gradual aging, of “the flourish set on youth” against the wrinkles, “the parallels set in beauty’s brow,” there is yet that promise for the future and future humans and ages which occurs in more than one Shakespearean sonnet: “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,/Praising thy worth….” The poet has thus secured a future existence not only for himself, but for his friend who inspires him to write as well.
Thus, for the perfection of a form united with a concept, for the developing view of past, present, and future as they impinge upon a great poet’s awareness, and for deservedly famous tributes to love and friendship, these three sonnets by Shakespeare that I have reproduced here and commented on in passing are ideal: if you enjoyed them, why not read them aloud with a friend, to a friend, when occasion presents itself? Even better, commit them to memory or do some art work to accompany the words on parchment paper as a special gift for a friend who’s down in the dumps. Even if your friend is not an expert with Shakepearean English, the meanings are fairly clear if you read with the punctuation, and worth sharing.